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Reviews of The Tainted Cup by Robert Bennett

The Tainted Cup

by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett X
The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennett
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Feb 2024, 432 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

A Holmes and Watson–style detective duo take the stage in this fantasy with a mystery twist, from the Edgar-winning, multiple Hugo-nominated Robert Jackson Bennett

In Daretana's greatest mansion, a high imperial officer lies dead—killed, to all appearances, when a tree erupted from his body. Even here at the Empire's borders, where contagions abound and the blood of the leviathans works strange magical changes, it's a death both terrifying and impossible.

Assigned to investigate is Ana Dolabra, a detective whose reputation for brilliance is matched only by her eccentricities. Rumor has it that she wears a blindfold at all times, and that she can solve impossible cases without even stepping outside the walls of her home.

At her side is her new assistant, Dinios Kol, magically altered in ways that make him the perfect aide to Ana's brilliance. Din is at turns scandalized, perplexed, and utterly infuriated by his new superior—but as the case unfolds and he watches Ana's mind leap from one startling deduction to the next, he must admit that she is, indeed, the Empire's greatest detective.

As the two close in on a mastermind and uncover a scheme that threatens the Empire itself, Din realizes he's barely begun to assemble the puzzle that is Ana Dolabra—and wonders how long he'll be able to keep his own secrets safe from her piercing intellect.

By an "endlessly inventive" (Vulture) author with a "wicked sense of humor" (NPR), The Tainted Cup mixes the charms of detective fiction with brilliant world-building to deliver a fiendishly clever mystery that's at once instantly recognizable and thrillingly new.

Chapter 1

The walls of the estate emerged from the morning fog before me, long and dark and rounded like the skin of some beached sea creature. I walked along them, trying to ignore the flutter of my heart and the trickle of sweat down my neck. A faint blue light glimmered in the mist ahead. With each step it calcified into a mai-lantern hanging above the estate's servants' gate; and there, leaning against the walls beside the gate, was the figure of a uniformed man in a shining steel cap waiting for me.

The princeps watched me approach. He cocked an eyebrow at me, and it climbed higher up his forehead the closer I came to him. By the time I'd finally stopped before him it'd almost joined the hair atop his head.

I cleared my throat in what I hoped was an authoritative manner, and said, "Signum Dinios Kol, assistant to the investigator. I'm here about the body."

The princeps blinked, then looked me up and down. Being as I was nearly a head taller than him, it took him a moment. "I see, sir...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  1. How did the author play with and subvert the standard tropes of the mystery genre? Of the fantasy genre? What were your favorite parts of how he blended them together in this novel?
  2. What did you think of the incredible world the author built? What parts of the Empire of Khanum and its workings intrigued you the most?
  3. Do you think the world of The Tainted Cup is a dystopia? If so, what are the most dystopian things about it? What are the least dystopian things?
  4. What were your first impressions of Ana and Din? How did those impressions change over the course of the novel?
  5. What did you think of Ana and Din's relationship? Did you find it entertaining? Would you want to work under someone like Ana, who is both extremely ...

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BookBrowse Review


In many respects it's a standard police procedural – a crime is committed, the authorities collect evidence and interview suspects, the criminal is caught. Every other aspect, however, is wholly unexpected, from the choice of murder weapon to the deductions made by Din and Ana to the ultimate revelation of the guilty party. Bennett liberally peppers the story with red herrings, too, keeping readers guessing from start to finish. And, of course, there's the intriguing pairing of the book's two protagonists. Some have compared them to Holmes and Watson, and while there's rationale for that (Ana certainly has that Sherlock Holmes vibe about her), I find Din a much more interesting and more active participant than Watson ever was. The secondary characters aren't as developed as I would have liked, with most coming across as one-dimensional. And some stylistic choices should have been rethought. Certainly, these flaws grated at times, but I enjoyed the mystery so darned much that it still earns my highest recommendation...continued

Full Review Members Only (670 words)

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

Booklist (starred review)
Inspired by Nero Wolfe with a bit of Hannibal Lecter added to his prime investigator, Bennett ... kicks off the Shadow of the Leviathan series, which will delight fans of fantasy-infused mysteries.

Kirkus Reviews
Sherlock Holmes meets Game of Thrones... . A rousing adventure for alt-fantasy fans.

Library Journal (starred review)
Introduces readers to a conspiracy of murder and skullduggery as seen through the eyes of a naive junior investigator ... as his boss and mentor, the rather Sherlockian Ana, threads her way through a complex conspiracy of murders... . Highly recommended for lovers of fantasy and steampunk mystery and readers searching for magically engineered combinations of alchemy and corruption.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Bennett ... brilliantly melds genres in this exceptional mystery-fantasy... . The worldbuilding is immediately involving, Bennett's take on a classic detective duo dynamic feels fresh and exciting, and the mystery itself twists and turns delightfully. Readers will be wowed.

Author Blurb Fonda Lee, World Fantasy Award–winning author of the Green Bone Saga
A riveting murder mystery wrapped in a twisty conspiracy, set in a vivid fantasy world terrorized by eldritch monsters ... If you love unique, genre-bending, boundary-pushing fantasy as much as I do, look no further than Robert Jackson Bennett.

Author Blurb Meg Gardiner, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the UNSUB series
Original, imaginative, and suspenseful, The Tainted Cup superbly blends mystery and fantasy in this vivid, complex novel. I couldn't put it down. Give me more of this world and these characters ASAP!

Author Blurb Wesley Chu, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the War Arts Saga
Part Sherlock Holmes murder mystery, part Through the Looking-Glass, The Tainted Cup is one of the wildest, most original stories I've ever had the privilege to explore. I am in awe of Bennett's creativity, the intricate plotting, and this immersive world filled with mushroom air conditioners, killer trees, and giant leviathans that stretch the imagination. I loved every second of it. This is a book that has planted roots in my head for the rest of my life.

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Beyond the Book

A Brief History of the Police Procedural

Covers of classic and modern police procedurals: The Moonstone, V as in Victim, The Trespasser, All the Sinners Bleed As most will know, a mystery novel is one that starts off with a conundrum – someone has been killed, something or someone has gone missing – and proceeds along a logical path until the puzzle is solved, generally with plot twists and red herrings along the way. There are many variations on this theme, and consequently many subgenres have cropped up over the decades since mystery novels first appeared, with an often-cited early English-language example being Wilkie Collins' 1860 work The Woman in White. These include:

  • Locked-room mysteries, where someone in the room must be the murderer, as in Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None
  • Historical mysteries, set in an earlier age, like The Name of the Rose by ...

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